02/2011: Dr Jacob Rhyner


Dr Jacob Rhyner
Director of the United Nations University’s Institute
for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS)


“Climate change and migration: actions planned after Caucun”


Ü Eurasylum: The outcome of the work of the Ad Hoc Working Group on long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention adopted in Cancun on 11 December 2010 acknowledges the need to address the movement of people as a result of climate change (paragraph 14 (f)). Can you guide us through the main debates and conclusions of the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference as regards internal and international forced migration?

Ü Dr Jacob Rhyner: Allow me to give you a timeline of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) discussions on climate induced migration between 2007 and December 2010, which resulted in the Cancun Adaptation Framework (agreed by parties) in the following wording:

14. Invites all Parties to enhance action on adaptation under the Cancun Adaptation Framework, taking into account their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, and specific national and regional development priorities, objectives and circumstances, by undertaking, inter alia, the following:

(f) Measures to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation, where appropriate, at national, regional and international levels;

Adaptation was firmly established as a focus of the UNFCCC climate negotiations by the Conference of the Parties held in 2007 in Bali, Indonesia (COP13). This session created the Bali Action Plan which laid out the elements of adaptation. It further created the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA), a subsidiary body intended to prepare the ground for a successful climate agreement to succeed (or complement) the Kyoto Protocol. Between COP13 (Bali) and COP14 (Poznan), the tasks of the AWG-LCA were to explore in greater detail the proposals from Parties and Observers on elements for “enhanced action on adaptation and mitigation and the associated enabling and supporting actions”. During this time, the UNFCCC accepted submissions from both Parties and Observers, in order to begin identifying concrete elements for an agreed outcome to be reached at the fifteenth session of COP. Thus, before COP 14 research and operational organizations had the opportunity to directly co-shape ideas for the draft negotiating text within the established process. In this context, the wider humanitarian community – including UN agencies, research, and civil society – massively mobilized in the period from 2008 to 2009 to ensure that the human face of climate change would be duly represented. That was the moment when the idea of environmentally induced migration was formally introduced in the UNFCCC process.

For the Poznan session (COP 14), AWG-LCA Chair Michael Zammit Cutajar had compiled an assembly document – reflecting submissions by applied research and the humanitarian community – which mentioned migration for the first time (See FCCC/AWGLCA/2009/16/Rev.1 paragraphs 63(g) on measuring, verifying, and reporting of emissions reductions (section C, ILO submission); paragraph 112(f) and 112(h) in section D, UNU submission, IASC and UNU submissions).http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2008/awglca4/eng/16r01.pdf.)

From COP14 2008 onwards, migration maintained its presence in the draft negotiating text. During the sixth AWG-LCA session in June 2009, Parties provided general comments on its structure and content of the LCA text, stated reservations and objections to elements of the text, and proposed additions and modifications. At the opening plenary, Jonathan Pershing (Head of Delegation, US) expressed concern about the use of the term “climate refugee” in the draft text. Since that statement, however, there appears to be no public record of Party objections or concerns about the inclusion of the issue in the UNFCCC negotiations text. The UNFCCC noted Pershing´s recommendation and revised the wording around migration and displacement which was then carried forward in discussions from Bangkok and Barcelona in the autumn of 2009 to Copenhagen´s COP15 in December 2009.

In the high-pressure COP15 negotiations in Copenhagen, UNFCCC delegates to the AWG-LCA continued working on elements of a broader adaptation framework, which at the time still included the key words “migration and displacement “. During those delegates drafting sessions, some Parties suggested that an array of themes be added into a paragraph on migration and displacement: Human rights, mother earth, climate justice, compensation to vulnerable people, and other items were proposed. The concern was expressed that the paragraph on migration and displacement would be difficult to include, if it was couched in these terms. Parties consulted and decided that it was sufficiently important to include migration and displacement and compromises were found for the placement of other issues (such as placing human rights in the preambulatory text as a principle), and the wording became anchored in what later was accepted as the outcome text from COP15 (FCCC/CP/2010/2, in Paragraph 4(f)).

The COP15 process created a text whose legal status was under discussion, but most areas of adaptation were not to be opened up for re-drafting. Therefore the actual wording and content of the paragraph on adaptation did not change significantly throughout the year of 2010.

After the perceived disappointment of the COP 15, there was pressure to create a package of balanced outcomes for Cancun. In this context, delegates focused increasingly on what kinds of elements could be included in a possible Cancun Adaptation Framework. At COP 16, Parties decided to accept the draft text containing several key elements for adaptation: including the Cancun Adaptation Framework; including an Adaptation Committee; including specific elements such as paragraph 14(f) on migration and displacement, as well as an SBI work program on loss and damage.

Ü Eurasylum: Your Institute is a member of the Climate Change, Environment and Migration Alliance (CCEMA), which provides an informal framework for inter-governmental and non-governmental representatives of all the key constituencies – migration, the environment, humanitarian, development and academia. In a document prepared for the Caucun Conference, the CCEMA indicates that “while there are no reliable estimates of the numbers of people who will move as a result of climate change impacts, the rise in the scale of population movement, in particular within countries, will be substantial”. Can you discuss, briefly, the current state of research into the magnitude and impacts of environmentally induced migration, and any information/research gaps that might still need to be addressed in the foreseeable future?

Ü Dr Jacob Rhyner: Until now, there is no widely agreed and measurable definition of human mobility linked to environmental change. This contributes to the already difficult task of compiling accurate data sets or precise figures across scientific studies. (Further, governance issues arise related to definitions: Some refer to “environmental refugees” while others refute that the word “refugee” has a specific legal meaning in the context of the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. See Castles, S. (2002): Environmental change and forced migration: making sense of the debate In: New Issues in Refugee Research. Working Paper No. 70. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Geneva; Dun, O. and Gemenne, F. 2008 “Defining Environmental Migration”, Climate Change and Displacement. Forced Migration Review 31:10-11). One can truly say that this field of research is in its infancy and the researchers are doing here pioneer work. One of our sections at UNU-EHS, (headed by Dr. Koko Warner), is very much involved in this discussion, especially as Dr. Warner is one of the IPCC lead authors on this subject. From this work it becomes clear that knowledge gaps in the research about environmental change, migration and displacement can be divided across four areas:

– Environmental processes that trigger migration
– The process of environmental migration itself
– Policy frameworks and institutions that address environmentally induced migration
– Understanding environmentally induced migration – including resettlement and relocation – as adaptation, or something beyond adaptation

New evidence-based research projects, methods, and concepts are emerging to help address some of the most important knowledge gaps around environmental change, migration, and displacement. IPCC scenarios suggest that climate change is likely to be an increasingly important variable in this equation. However, there are no reliable estimates of the number of people on the move today or in the future as a result of environmental factors, and more specifically, as a result of climate change.

Expert estimates of current and future numbers are divergent and controversial, ranging from 25 to 50 million by the year 2010 (Myers, N. (2002): Environmental refugees: a growing phenomenon of the 21st century. In: Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B. vol. 357, pp. 609-613) to almost 700 million by 2050 (Christian Aid (2007): Human Tide: The real migration crisis. Christian Aid Report May 2007. London). A report commissioned by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) takes the middle road with an estimate of 200 million environmentally-induced migrants by 2050 (Brown, Oli (2008): Migration and Climate Change. In: International Organization for Migration (IOM): Research Series No. 31, IOM Geneva). The most widely cited figure predicts 200 million people moving or being permanently displaced by 2050 due to environmental factors, roughly equivalent to the estimates of the total of international migrants in the world today (214 million).

Even without climate change, the coming years are likely to witness continuing large-scale migration out of the agricultural sector, particularly in developing countries where farm incomes are significantly lower than non-farm incomes. Climate change, specifically global warming, is likely to accelerate this pace of migration. Several economic models project that global warming will have more effects on the distribution of farm production than global farm output, with new areas becoming viable for farming as a result of higher temperatures. However, far more people are likely to be displaced by global warming than those likely to find jobs in these new farming areas – often located in developed countries where mechanization of new farm operations is probable. While reliable figures are not available for either the current or future population flows triggered by environmental factors, climate change, demographic trends and globalization all point to more migration and displacement.

Ü Eurasylum: In the same document from the CCEMA, emphasis is placed on the fact that the potential scale of future movements ‘’will require international support for those countries and communities most affected by internal and immediate cross-border environmental migration as less and least-developed countries will not have sufficient capacities or resources to manage or respond to such flows”. Can you summarise some of the most pressing priorities for international action and funding in the field of climate change and migration?

Ü Dr Jacob Rhyner: A central question around approaches to govern environmentally induced human mobility is: “what do governments need to know about the potential impacts of climate change and human mobility in order to prepare their own appropriate legal, institutional, and governance approaches?” .

A few examples of policy frameworks addressing this issue are available, such as temporary protection status (TPS) in the United States and Europe or principles and soft laws for protecting people who have been displaced by environmental events. Yet beyond humanitarian approaches for rapid-onset extreme events, there are significant governance gaps. Complex and slow onset events could pose a major challenge to legal and governance frameworks, in part because responsibility and temporal limits are difficult to assign. Moreover various institutions that deal with different issues related to the impacts of climate change may have a tendency to operate in “silos” and may approach issues such as climate change within narrow sectoral perspectives.

Therefore policy makers need to take a holistic approach to this emerging issue which addresses both the drivers in origin areas (e.g. livelihood insecurity, environmental hazards, conflict, demographic pressures, gender inequality, etc.) and the pull factors in destinations (e.g. demand for labour, aging population).

Some of the following examples for policy perspectives could help shape activities around climate induced displacement and migration:

Help people to stay through sustainable rural and urban development: In many cases, climate induced displacement can be avoided by ensuring livelihood security for affected people both in rural and urban areas. Up to 25% of today’s world population are farmers, with higher percentages in many developing countries. Climate change will take its toll on the ability of these people to feed themselves and their families in the future. When livelihoods fail, people may experience forced migration or displacement.

Help people go in safety and dignity, where necessary: Paragraph 14(f) notes the possibility that planned relocation may be part of future adaptation scenarios. In cases where movement of human populations is the best or possibly only adaptation strategy, effective policy responses can help to ensure that movements are orderly and safe. Policies should avoid situations where people are forced to move (distress migration) or move in emergency situations. Policies should aim to ensure that displaced people do not become more vulnerable.

Support disaster risk reduction and conflict mediation strategies while strengthening humanitarian responses: Governments need to take action to reduce the risks people face from acute crises arising from natural disasters and competition over resources leading to conflict. If not, they will be called upon to help later, when the problem will be much more difficult to address.

NB: Background information on the United Nations University

The United Nations University (UNU) is the academic and research arm of the UN. It bridges the academic world and the UN system. Its goal is to develop sustainable solutions for current and future problems of humankind in all aspects of life. Through a problem-oriented and interdisciplinary approach it aims at teaching, applied research and education on a global scale. UNU was founded in 1973, as an autonomous organ of the United Nations General Assembly. The University comprises headquarters in Tokyo, Japan and more than a dozen Institutes and Programmes world wide. In Germany (Bonn) UNU is represented by the Vice Rectorate in Europe, which is part of the Headquarters, and the Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS). As part of UNU in Bonn, the “Secretariat of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change” (UNU-IHDP) and the “UN-Water Decade Programme on Capacity Development (UNW-DCP) are hosted by the Vice Rectorate in Europe.